McAlister Musings: It is darkest before the dawn, but the dawn is running late

Well, no need to sugarcoat things. Let’s get right to the facts:

— The Citadel has lost 11 straight games, and is now 0-5 in SoCon play.

— The Bulldogs are next-to-last in Division I in Kenpom’s defensive efficiency ratings. There are 347 teams in D-1, and The Citadel is 346th.

— The Citadel’s adjusted offensive efficiency isn’t anything to write home about, either. The Bulldogs are actually a decent shooting team, but their turnover rate has been horrific all season. At 25.4%, The Citadel ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in that statistic.

— About halfway through the losing streak, The Citadel started allowing opponents to collect an alarming number of offensive rebounds, which has contributed to the defensive problems. Bulldog foes are rebounding almost two-fifths of their misses. That makes The Citadel one of the 25 worst teams in the country in defensive OR%.

— The failure to control the defensive glass has lessened the impact of a statistic that was beginning to improve. Through seven games, 47.6% of opponents’ field goal attempts were three-pointers. That percentage has declined to a still-high but much more palatable 35.9%. The Citadel has done a better job of stopping teams from taking three-point shots.

— Unfortunately, when they do take long-range shots, the opposition is still making them from beyond the arc at an extraordinary rate, 41.5%. Only three other teams allow opponents to shoot a higher percentage from three-land. Some of that (not all of it) is bad luck.

— The Citadel has had a tendency to get behind early, by scores like 11-3 (against the College of Charleston), 21-14 (Samford), 22-13 (Chattanooga), 18-11 (Western Carolina), 20-3 (Georgia Tech), 24-13 (St. Bonaventure), and 12-4 (Radford, a game that the Highlanders would lead by 22 at one point in the first half).

Five of the games I mentioned were home contests. It’s hard for the crowd (such as it is) to get enthusiastic when the team falls behind so quickly.

After the loss to Samford, I started to wonder if The Citadel would win another game this season. After thinking about it (and the subsequent game against the College of Charleston), I am a lot more confident the Bulldogs will win again this year. I base that partly on The Citadel’s improved play, but also on the less-than-scintillating status of the SoCon as a whole.

At the beginning of the season, I thought that the Southern Conference would be a stronger league than it was last year. However, the conference has been worse. The SoCon returned a lot of last year’s better players, but apparently most of them came back because they didn’t have any other place to go.

The Bulldogs still have 13 league games remaining (plus a “Bracketbusters” contest against an opponent to be determined). The Citadel is going to come out on top somewhere down the line.

That doesn’t make me feel much better about the way the season has gone, though. I am sure the coaching staff is profoundly frustrated, to say nothing about the players’ disappointment. This season wasn’t supposed to look like last year’s 6-24 campaign, but it is on pace to be just as bad from the standpoint of the overall record.

The one excuse I don’t want to hear any more is that “we have a young team”. The Citadel had a young team last year. This year it has a bunch of sophomores and a few freshmen (along with an outstanding senior, Mike Groselle), and the Bulldogs have already played half of the season schedule. Everyone understood what last season was all about. This year was supposed to be about reaping some rewards for running through that youth-infused gauntlet.

Longtime supporters of The Citadel have heard the “we have a young team” line all too often in years past. It gets old after a while. Very old.

I realize that what I wrote above is, well, rather negative. Then again, the Bulldogs have lost eleven consecutive games. Things haven’t gone well so far this season. The record reflects that.  The statistical profile reflects that.

There are positives, though. The addition of Rae Robinson and P.J. Horgan into the rotation has made the Bulldogs a better team. As I noted above, the Bulldogs are starting to defend the perimeter a little better than they were earlier in the season (though there is plenty of room for continued improvement). Offensively, The Citadel has several guys who can put the ball in the basket, and in a variety of ways. That is encouraging.

Against the College of Charleston, the Bulldogs only committed eleven turnovers, a very respectable total in a 60+ possession game. If The Citadel plays every night like it did on Monday, the team is going to start winning. However, that effort has to be constant.

The Bulldogs aren’t good enough to turn the ball over one out of every four possessions and still win. The turnover issue has been the thing that has annoyed me the most, to be honest. I hope the players keep working with the medicine ball.

The Citadel has to continue to get better on defense, and part of that is solving the problem of defending the outside shot while maintaining control of the defensive glass. The Bulldogs have yet to consistently do both at the same time.

I know the players still have hopes of making a breakthrough. Chuck Driesell has said the right things, and clearly hasn’t “lost” the team despite the losing streak. I haven’t given up on them, either. It’s just tough when you’re on the wrong side of the scoreline game after game. I guess it will make an eventual turnaround that much sweeter.

I just wish that turnaround would hurry up and get here…

The Citadel’s new long-range strategic initiative and what it means for varsity athletics: The LEAD Plan 2018

Links:

Welcome to The LEAD Plan 2018

The LEAD Plan 2018 (also available as a .pdf)

I didn’t realize until recently that The Citadel’s new strategic planning initiative had been published. Maybe the announcement of its release was made and I just missed it (which is entirely possible). It appears to have been issued on or around December 12, 2012.

From the school website:

More than simply a document, this new six-year commitment to ensure the strong future of The Citadel, serves as the college’s map that all members of the college community can follow to realize strategic growth and innovation during the next six years.

The name of this plan draws from the core mission of the college, spotlighting The Citadel’s strong reputation for Leadership Excellence and Academic Distinction.

As we take stock of the last few years, The Citadel’s strategic planning empowered the college to face historic economic hardships and grow while other institutions of higher education were forced to cut programs. The Citadel has clearly navigated the new landscape and realized innovations. Innovation in curricula and program growth. Innovation in service to our students and families. Innovation in facilities. Innovation in developing regional partners in industry and the Lowcountry community. In true Citadel fashion, the college faces each challenge and emerges stronger.

From the introductory letter:

In the fall of 2011, a collaborative team at The Citadel embarked on an important journey to plan, shape and position the future successes of the college. During the past year, The Citadel conducted a campus-wide planning process that engaged the campus community in a discussion of the institution’s strategic goals and vision, culminating in The LEAD Plan, The Citadel’s 2012-2018 Strategic Plan to promote Leadership Excellence and Academic Distinction.

This planning document communicates The Citadel’s priorities and lays the foundation for a successful capital campaign that will propel the institution to new heights of academic and leadership prominence…

…the following eight strategic initiatives comprise the planning priorities for The Citadel:

ONE – Develop principled leaders in a globalized environment.
TWO – Enhance the learning environment.
THREE – Strengthen the college through institutional advancement.
FOUR – Develop the student population.
FIVE – Enhance the facilities and technological support for the campus.
SIX – Improve institutional effectiveness.
SEVEN – Ensure the college has the leadership and talent to accomplish these strategic initiatives.
EIGHT – Provide outreach to the region and serve as a resource in its economic development.

Later in the document, there is a reference to the financial setup of this plan:

Success of The LEAD Plan 2018 will be realized through the continuing partnership with The Citadel Foundation, which will provide the funding for the plan’s action items. In particular, The Citadel Foundation will operate a six-year capital campaign that will be aligned with the priorities of The LEAD Plan and its primary lines of effort.

This initiative is the successor to the “Blueprint”, which was The Citadel’s 2009-2012 strategic plan.

In March of 2012, I wrote about some aspects of the Blueprint, among other things, in an ambitious, overly long essay about The Citadel’s future as an institution (with a focus on varsity sports). Now the college has announced its plans for the next few years, and beyond.

I’m not going to rehash the entire LEAD plan. I would encourage anyone interested in The Citadel to read it. It’s not that long (35 pages).

I want to discuss a few things in the plan that are directly related to varsity sports at the military college. They are noteworthy, and newsworthy as well. Of course, everything in the document can be said to have relevance for athletics in some way, and the reverse is often true as well.

Just to list two examples, one macro, one micro: one of the school’s stated goals is to maintain a graduation rate for all cadets of 75%. That’s a major statement. Another goal, obviously not as sweeping but important in its own sphere, is to upgrade the organic chemistry and physics laboratories.

These are the types of things that would matter to many prospective recruits (and their families).

However, since this is a (mostly) sports blog, let’s look at items that are immediately associated with the department of athletics.

Below are certain sections of The LEAD Plan 2018. They are denoted in italics. I have some brief comments following each section.

First up, initiative #3…

Strategic Initiative Supporting Outcomes, #3: Strengthen the College through Institutional Advancement

In the new higher education environment defined by economic challenges and constrained resources, The Citadel must double its efforts to identify alternative funding sources and advancement opportunities. During the next six years, The Citadel will take steps to expand fundraising and grant-writing expertise, increase the financial independence of The Citadel’s athletics program, and enhance regional and national promotion of the institution.

The Citadel’s athletics program will increase its financial independence and generate 100% of the revenues needed to eliminate the need for campus support from unrestricted gift funds.

*** Objective 3.2 Increase the financial independence of The Citadel’s athletics program

Athletics are an integral component of educating principled leaders, fostering institutional loyalty and spirit, and maintaining a vibrant campus community. The institution will execute several actions designed to strengthen both the athletics program and the college during the next six years.

Actions

– Create an Athletics Excellence Fund and offer naming opportunities

Create additional fundraising activities

Key Performance Indicators

Increase membership in the Brigadier Foundation by 25%

Increase new endowed scholarship funds by $5M

*** Objective 3.4 Expand regional and national promotion of The Citadel brand

Expanding the marketing infrastructure and programmatic initiatives will help promote The Citadel brand more prominently across the region and country.

Actions

– Expand the college’s marketing strategy to include a more competitive brand positioning that spotlights The Citadel generally and in support of key programs

– Develop measurable outreach tactics that target student prospects for high-priority programs

Key Performance Indicators

– Increase applications by 15% by 2015

– Increase website traffic by 5% by 2015

– Achieve positive brand awareness feedback in surveys

I’ve highlighted some of the more interesting goals/expected outcomes.

Increasing the size of the Brigadier Foundation is a must, as I think everyone would agree. Increasing membership by 25% will be tough. It is not impossible. However, the goal in the Blueprint for membership growth wasn’t 25% — it was 35%. The Citadel did not come particularly close to meeting that standard.

To reach an increase of 25%, the foundation would need to add about 450 new members. For a small school, that is not going to be easy.

In addition to the membership drive, the school wants to have an enormous increase in endowed scholarships for athletics.

While objective 3.4 is not specifically about the department of athletics, I included it here because I believe athletics is a key element to the “branding” issue, an idea reflected throughout the strategic plan.

As an aside, shooting for a 5% increase in web traffic strikes me as a very modest goal.

Strategic Initiative Supporting Outcomes, #4: Develop the Student Population

The Citadel will become the national institution of choice after the federal service academies for academic and military preparation for careers in the armed services.

The Citadel will develop the mix of its student populations to reflect diversity goals. The Citadel will develop and refine its scholarship and financial assistance programs to support its recruitment goals.

*** Objective 4.4 Expand student diversity and sustain an enrollment of 2,135 in the Corps of Cadets

Citadel graduates work, serve and reside in diverse environments. The prospects for their success as principled leaders are enhanced by exposure to diverse perspectives, interpretations and points of view. Supporting that diversity enriches the educational environment.

Actions 

Recruit quality cadet-athletes—who will add to the institution’s culture of diversity within the Corps of Cadets—by funding full athletic scholarships in all sports

– Expand need-based funding

Key Performance Indicators

– Increase need-based funding to $2 million by 2018

Offer 100% of full athletic scholarships

Well, now this is something to ponder. Does the school intend to fund the maximum number of scholarships in all sports? That’s certainly what it seems to say. I suppose it could mean that it “just” means any cadet athlete on scholarship would be guaranteed a full ride, but that’s not how I am interpreting it.

Maxing out on scholarships is a very laudable goal. It would be a great boon to most of the “Olympic” sports; the one that most immediately comes to mind is actually rifle, which is reportedly only funded at 42% of its maximum scholarship allotment (1.5 out of a possible 3.6 schollies).

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: The Citadel could conceivably win an NCAA title in rifle. If that happened, Big Red would soon have its day flying atop the Statehouse dome. Adding a couple of rifle scholarships would go a long way to making that dream a reality.

It’s an expensive dream, to be sure.

I was surprised when reading the plan to find that basically the entire undergraduate component of “developing the student population” was devoted to increasing funding for athletics scholarships.

Strategic Initiative Supporting Outcomes, #5: Enhance the Facilities and Technological Support for the Campus 

*** Objective 5.3 Enhance athletic facilities

Athletic facilities represent a core element of the campus educational and co-curricular experience and will be renovated to include more competitive facilities and technological innovations.

Actions

Renovate the Altman Center

Renovate McAlister Field House and Vandiver and Seignious Halls

Build practice volleyball and basketball facilities

Key Performance Indicators

Complete athletics renovations by 2018

None of this is a big surprise. I don’t recall a clamor for a practice volleyball facility, but I can certainly understand the need.

Strategic Initiative Supporting Outcomes, #7: Ensure the college has the leadership and talent to accomplish these strategic initiatives

*** Objective 7.2 Expand the number of qualified personnel able to coach, teach, train and mentor units and individuals across the Four Pillars

The Citadel’s Leader Development Model integrates the academic, military, physical and moral-ethical pillars of The Citadel Experience. Several actions are central in driving further integration of these domains.

Actions

– Develop a summer coaching and mentoring workshop for tactical officers

Create a series of endowed athletics positions to include the director of athletics as well as head coaches of football, basketball and baseball

Key Performance Indicators

Endow a strategic athletics position by 2015

– Develop and implement a summer coaching and mentoring workshop for tactical officers by 2014

 —

Ah, this is what I call the “Ivy League” model. What I mean by that:

– At Princeton, Bob Surace is not the head football coach. He is actually The Charles W. Caldwell Jr. ’25 Head Coach of Football. That is how he is listed on every Princeton release.

– Gary Walters is not the director of athletics at Princeton. He is The Ford Family Director of Athletics.

– Mitch Henderson is not the men’s basketball coach at Princeton. He is The Franklin C. Cappon-Edward G. Green ’40 head men’s basketball coach.

You get the idea. It’s not just Princeton, either. Many Ivy League schools have endowed positions. Harvard has them for numerous sports, including tennis, wrestling, and…squash.

That’s why when Ivy League schools issue press releases about their varsity teams, they often look like this one from Cornell:

Andy Noelthe Meakem-Smith Director of Athletics and Physical Education, has announced that Kent Austin, the Roger J. Weiss ’61 Head Coach of Football, has accepted the joint position of vice president of football operations, general manager and head football coach of the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, effective immediately.

While this would result in a little extra work for the staffers in Athletic Media Relations, having an endowed position would obviously do wonders for budgeting.

Incidentally, some larger schools endow athletic scholarships for specific on-field football positions. At Southern California, every starting position on the football team is endowed in perpetuity, including placekicker and punter.

I think it is clear that as far as The LEAD Plan 2018 is concerned, varsity athletics is a top priority. What the school wants to do is very interesting. I think it’s laudable. It will also take a great deal of money.

Raising that kind of cash, particularly the focus on endowments, is going to be an enormous challenge. However, I don’t think it’s a “pie in the sky” situation. Having said that, does anyone know a billionaire or two who might be willing to help out?

The Citadel administration appears to have some big ideas, and has chosen to make them public. I am glad to see this. Potential donors need to know what the long-term plans of the school will be. Now, they should have a very good sense of where the college wants to go.

I am on record as favoring an expansion in varsity sports offerings at the military college, specifically in sports that could appeal to a wider geographic student demographic (lacrosse being the most obvious example).

It could be argued, with considerable justification, that the school first needs to shore up support for its existing squads. However, I think The Citadel’s fundraising should be two-pronged: focused on improving what it has now, and opening new vistas for the school. That is true both for the overall scope of the college and the department of athletics, and seems to be what The LEAD Plan is all about.

Another point in favor of adding varsity sports is that the current phase of conference realignment may give The Citadel some new opportunities. While there is concern for where the school may wind up in the NCAA landscape when the dust has settled, I think it’s possible that The Citadel may find itself in a revamped Southern Conference with a much larger percentage of schools that are “like-minded” (relatively speaking).

It is also possible that The Citadel may have a chance to join a new league, or relocate to another conference. For that to happen, the school would need to have a sports portfolio in line with other potential league members. I’ve pointed out before that The Citadel has fewer varsity teams than many other schools that are “peers”. In my opinion, that needs to change.

Change. It is a word that can send shivers down the spine of many an alum of The Citadel. I know that is the case for me.

However, while change is inevitable, it can be shaped to fit the overall mission of the institution. Now supporters of the college have a better idea of how the school’s current leadership intends to do that. It will take time, hard work, intelligent planning, and a lot of resources.

That is what excellence is all about.

Hope on the hardwood? The Citadel begins the 2012-13 basketball season

Note: as I mentioned earlier, I’m participating in “Scanning the SoCon”, a cross-blog/forum exercise. As part of this, there will be a preview for each league school. I am writing the preview for The Citadel, which you can read below (it is being posted on Mocs Mania! as well, of course). Previews for the other conference schools can be found here: Link

There were three topics (attendance, polls, and ratings) that I wanted to discuss in more detail but couldn’t quite fit into the preview. I’ve decided to write about them next week in a followup post.

The Citadel was 6-24 last season, 3-15 in the Southern Conference. Thus, it surprised no one that in the SoCon preseason polls (media and coaches)  the Bulldogs were picked to finish last in the South division of the league. Indeed, The Citadel received fewer votes than any team in the league, in either division.

The last time The Citadel finished dead last in both preseason polls was prior to the 2008-09 season. The Bulldogs had gone 6-24 the previous year, in head coach Ed Conroy’s second season at The Citadel. More of the same was expected, but instead the Bulldogs won 20 games for only the second time in school history, 15 of them coming in league play. It was the finest season on the hardwood for The Citadel in 30 years, and one of the best in school history.

Just like Ed Conroy in 2008-09,  Chuck Driesell is entering his third season in charge of the Bulldogs after enduring a 6-24 campaign. Conroy brought in eight scholarship freshmen for his second season; so did Driesell.

However, there are differences between then and now. Conroy’s batch of freshmen included a player who would be named Freshman of the Year in the Southern Conference, Cameron Wells, and another (Zach Urbanus) who finished the year as a solid contributor. None of the freshmen who played last year for The Citadel (two were redshirted) had a season as good as Wells’ initial campaign for the Bulldogs.

That isn’t to say that significant improvement can’t be made. I suspect it will. However, the same can be said for the Southern Conference in general. I expect the league to be better than it was last year, as many of the better players from last season are returning in 2012-13.

It’s only one statistical category, but I couldn’t help but notice that ten of last season’s top thirteen SoCon performers in Ken Pomeroy’s “offensive rating” system (minimum 20% possessions used) are back this year. That group of ten doesn’t even include established performers like Trevis Simpson, Lucas Troutman, Trent Wiedeman, and a couple of Cochrans (Wofford’s Karl and Davidson’s Nik).

The league is going to be tough this year. Can the Bulldogs hang in there? If they are going to do so, they must first address some obvious shortcomings.

The Citadel was a very poor defensive team last season. Mike Groselle was the only consistent rebounder on the squad (though he was good enough to lead the league), and only three teams in all of Division I allowed opponents to shoot a higher percentage inside the arc (55.7%) than the Bulldogs.

That carried over into league action, although The Citadel wasn’t the worst defensive outfit in the conference in SoCon play, in part thanks to opponents’ three-point shooting (only 30.3%). Three league teams allowed more points per possession than did the Bulldogs in conference games.

However, the Bulldogs struggled on the offensive side of the court in conference play more than any other SoCon team, and by a wide margin, scoring only .907 points per possession in 19 league games (18 regular season matchups plus the first round of the SoCon tourney). The Citadel shot just 31% from outside the three-point line in league action and also had the worst turnover rate in the conference.

One positive: when the Bulldogs did score, it often came as a result of good team passing (The Citadel was second in the league in its ratio of assists to made baskets).

Mike Groselle had an outstanding season in 2011-12. Groselle led the league in rebounding and was second in scoring, being edged for the SoCon scoring crown by UNCG’s Trevis Simpson (who attempted 151 more shots from the field). Groselle was a very efficient performer (59.1 eFG%), and persevered despite being the focus of every opponent’s game plan.

He did everything well, basically, and made the 10-man all-conference team selected by the league coaches. However, Groselle did not make the media’s All-SoCon first team, an omission that was not easy to understand.

For the Bulldogs to improve this year, Groselle is going to need help. Will he get any?

When I watched The Citadel’s freshmen in action last year, I came to the conclusion that while several of them had promising skill sets, they just weren’t strong enough to handle the adjustment to Division I hoops. There is a chance that a year of physical maturity (and a lot of work in the weight room) will improve the Bulldogs’ rebounding numbers and alleviate some of the turnover problems that plagued the team last year.

C.J. Bray is a good example. The 6’7″ Bray is athletic enough to have been offered a football scholarship to Arkansas, and he can present matchup problems with his ability to float outside and hit the three-point shot. I thought he showed good instincts on the boards, too, but he wasn’t able to corral every rebound chance that came his way.

That may change this year. If he can also provide solid post defense, he will be a great help to Groselle. Bray started more games than any other Bulldog freshman last season (18). Another rising sophomore who goes by his initials, 6’8″ P.J. Horgan, saw limited action last year and may also be a factor in the frontcourt rotation.

Lawrence Miller shot 42% from three-point land last season, better than his overall field goal percentage (39%). He will probably get first crack at the 2-guard spot for the Bulldogs. Ashton Moore, who started 14 games last season and played more minutes than any other freshman, will also be in the mix. Moore is capable of putting the ball in the basket (30 points against UVA-Wise) but needs to be more consistent.

The point guard for The Citadel will be Marshall Harris III, who started the final 11 games last season. Harris must cut down on his turnovers to succeed in that role, and it’s key for the Bulldogs that he do so. There is no other obvious candidate to play the point, as DeVontae Wright transferred to USC-Aiken this summer. Moore could be an option, and one of the freshmen may get a look.

Wright was one of three underclassmen to transfer after last season. Jordan Robertson, a forward who showed flashes of potential last year, is now at Davidson County Community College. He was the only one of last year’s group of freshmen to leave. The third player to transfer, Barry Smith, moved on to Bethune-Cookman.

The two seniors on last year’s team, Cosmo Morabbi and Bo Holston, both graduated. Holston had one year of athletic eligibility remaining, and elected to play as a graduate student at Anderson. In all, players no longer on the roster accounted for 42% of the minutes played last season.

There are seven players on this year’s roster who have yet to appear in a Division I game — four incoming freshmen, two redshirt freshmen, and a fifth-year transfer student.

The most heralded of the “knobs” is Matt Van Scyoc, a 6’6″ wing player who led the state of Wisconsin in three-point shooting last year. Van Scyoc averaged 24.3 points and 13.3 rebounds per game his senior season and was an all-state selection in Wisconsin’s Division 5 high school classification.

His fellow classmates include 6’3″ swingman Raemond Robinson, a Goose Creek product who was also an outstanding high school football player. Robinson is used to winning, both on the gridiron and on the court; perhaps he can bring that kind of positive energy to The Citadel’s hoops squad (much like John Brown did during that aforementioned 2008-09 campaign).

Janeil Jenkins and Quinton Marshall each signed late in the spring. They are both guards, but of markedly different sizes; Jenkins is 5’10”, while Marshall is 6’5″. Chuck Driesell mentioned Marshall in a recent interview with Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier as someone who might get to play early.

Two of the eight freshmen from last year did not see any action in 2011-12. Dylen Setzekorn is a 6’7″ wing on the slender side (194 lbs., per The Citadel’s website). 6’9″ forward Michael Hundley is even thinner (180 lbs.). It is easy to see why both were redshirted.

Hundley has a reputation as a shotblocker. If he could get on the court with that skill, it would be a huge boon for The Citadel, which hasn’t had a true shot-swatter since Kirill Misyuchenko patrolled the lane for the Bulldogs in the late 1990s.

The final player on The Citadel’s roster is something of a wild card. Stephen Elmore is a 6’6″, 220-lb. graduate student who saw limited action at Princeton…as a baseball player. The 2012-13 campaign will be his first (and last) taste of college basketball, at least as a player.

He is the son of Len Elmore, the well-known college basketball commentator who was an outstanding college player at Maryland (and who had a solid NBA career as well). Driesell described Stephen Elmore as “a power forward who can shoot the three-pointer”. I have no idea what kind of impact (if any) he will have for the Bulldogs.

The Citadel’s non-league slate is about what you would expect for a team that only won six games a year ago and includes two games against non-Division I competition. The Bulldogs will open the season by hosting the All-Military Classic, which also features VMI, Army, and Air Force.

The Citadel squares off with VMI in its first game, on the same day the Bulldogs play the Keydets in football — in Lexington, VA. It’s a scheduling quirk that I think is unfortunate.

There are no home games in December, which is a little strange. The Citadel is playing “guarantee games” against Georgia Tech, Clemson, and…St. Bonaventure. I’m not sure why the Bulldogs are making the trip to Olean, New York, but at least Andrew Nicholson has moved on to the NBA.

In what I believe is a first, The Citadel is participating in Bracketbusters this season. Other out of conference games include a home contest against Radford and road games versus Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb.

I will be curious to see how Chuck Driesell handles tempo this season. Driesell prefers a faster pace than that implemented at The Citadel by Ed Conroy, but he was forced to slow things down last season in an effort to stay competitive. In that respect, he succeeded. The Citadel’s two late-season victories over Chattanooga and Appalachian State featured fewer possessions than any other games the Bulldogs played during the season.

I think a slower tempo is generally what works best for The Citadel, but it’s obviously not a style Driesell really enjoys, and I don’t know what his approach will be this year. His best player (Groselle) is probably best suited for games with a more restrained pace.

It’s just one of many things that makes this season for The Citadel a very interesting one. I’m not predicting a year like the 2008-09 campaign, but I believe the Bulldogs are going to surprise some people. The team has to make the leap from being competitive to winning games. It’s a difficult transition, but I think the talent is there to make that jump.

Game Review, 2012: Wofford

Wofford 24, The Citadel 21.

Links of interest:

Game story, The Post and Courier

Notes, The Post and Courier

Kevin Higgins’ postgame presser (video), with James Riley

Game story, Spartanburg Herald-Journal

Box score

I don’t really have a lot to say (or write, I suppose) about this game that hasn’t been said already. It was close, and the Dogs made a lot of good plays. They just didn’t make enough of them.

It’s hard to win on the road when you spot a good team 17 points, although to be fair The Citadel did not play poorly in the first half. There were a few bad breaks, and also some missed opportunities.

Odds and ends:

— I felt that offensive pass interference could have been called on Wofford on the pass that preceded the field goal; if it had been called, the Terriers would have only led 21-7 at halftime instead of 24-7. As it was, Domonic Jones actually got a piece of the ball on Wofford’s field goal, but it went through the uprights anyway. You don’t see that every day.

— The Citadel suffered yet another major injury on Saturday, as left guard Keith Carter ruptured his Achilles’ tendon. I was worried when I saw him sitting on the bench during the game. His absence on the o-line will be felt. Carter is a fine player and also serves as one of the team’s captains. He is having surgery on Friday.

— The bye week gave the coaches a chance to add a few new plays to the offensive repertoire. I would like to see that inside trap run (not sure what else to call it) more often going forward. It was frequently effective, and has “breakaway” potential, too.

— James Riley’s first game as a Bulldog was quite impressive. He had 12 tackles, with 2.5 for loss (including a sack). You could make an argument that he was the best defender on the field, for either team.

— It was nice to see The Post and Courier send a reporter and a columnist to the game. I would assume Clemson playing on Thursday night may have had something to do with that, but no matter.

In his column, Gene Sapakoff wrote: “Hopefully, head coach Kevin Higgins gets an extension on a contract due to expire after the 2013 season.”

While it is true that the Bulldogs have improved, contract extensions generally aren’t an immediate priority when the team has lost four of five contests, including one to an opponent the head coach has not beaten in eight tries, and with three games still remaining in the season.

That isn’t meant to be a slap at Kevin Higgins, by the way. He may eventually get an extension, and he may well deserve it.

I’m just suggesting that folks at The Citadel may not appreciate Sapakoff making such a pronouncement, particularly as his forays into the world of Bulldog athletics are limited at best.

— At the game on Saturday I was sitting in the stands next to a friend of mine. Midway through the third quarter he turned to me, gestured to the home stands and said, in an exasperated tone, “Those people don’t deserve their team.”

The statement was perhaps a bit harsh, but I knew where he was coming from. It was a largely docile crowd for major portions of the game.

There were 9,658 fans in attendance, the most people to see a game at Gibbs Stadium all season. That high-water mark could be attributed to homecoming, and to a sizable number of blue-clad fans in the visitors’ section.

The atmosphere at many football games can be described as festive or intense; at Wofford, it is pastoral.

Having said that, I enjoyed my trip to Spartanburg. I didn’t like the final score, but you can’t have everything.

Okay, pictures. I took a ton of bad photos on Saturday. My ability to take out-of-focus shots is almost unmatched. The least  embarrassing of the lot can be found below.

2012 Football, Week 8: The Citadel vs. Wofford

The Citadel at Wofford, to be played at Gibbs Stadium in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with kickoff at 1:30 pm ET on Saturday, October 27.  The game will be streamed on ESPN3.com, with Darren Goldwater providing play-by-play and Paul Maguire supplying the analysis. It can also be heard on radio via the twelve affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Danny Reed (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Josh Baker, with Lee Glaze roaming the sidelines and Walt Nadzak providing pre-game, halftime, and post-game commentary. 

Links of interest:

The Citadel game notes

Wofford game notes

SoCon weekly release

The Kevin Higgins Show (following the game against Western Carolina), Part 1 and Part 2

Kevin Higgins’ 10/22 press conference quotes

Mike Ayers on this week’s SoCon teleconference

Parking map for Gibbs Stadium

Catching up with…all-SoCon punter and fisherman Cass Couey

Catch up with Darien Robinson, too

This is the sixth time in the last seven years the game between The Citadel and Wofford will be on TV and/or ESPN3.com. It has been on SportSouth, it has been on SCETV, and now it’s on ESPN3, the second time the Bulldogs have been on that streaming service this season.

Paul Maguire was the analyst when The Citadel played NC State, and he will be again on Saturday. During the NCSU game he claimed in jest that his partner in the booth, Mike Gleason, was the offspring of Jackie Gleason. Perhaps this week he will try to suggest that Darren Goldwater is the son of Barry Goldwater. We can only hope.

While I can’t find the records (which is driving me crazy), I believe that The Citadel has only won one televised game during the Kevin Higgins era. It would be nice to turn that around this weekend.

Kevin Higgins has had no answers for Wofford. In the seven games the Bulldogs have played the Terriers since he became head coach of The Citadel, Wofford has won by an average score of 34-14, never failing to put at least 28 points on the board. It doesn’t matter if the Terriers have been good or bad (the 2009 team was 3-8 but still beat The Citadel by 26).

Last year, I wrote about what I felt was a possible lack of defensive aggression for The Citadel when it plays Wofford. In last season’s matchup, Wofford did not commit a turnover, and also was not penalized. That’s a rare combination. Of course, Wofford almost never gets penalized against The Citadel.

In the last four meetings between the two teams, the Terriers have committed a total of five penalties, for thirty yards (and one of the penalties was an intentional delay-of-game to set up a punt).

While I think the Bulldog D needs to be more aggressive, I am not sure it can afford to be. As everyone knows, The Citadel is starting to run out of linebackers, with Yemi Oyegunle the latest to be lost for the season. Oyegunle has a torn groin muscle, which does not sound particularly pleasant.

Getting the injury-ravaged defense ready for Wofford is going to be a tall order, even with an extra week to prepare. I am not overly confident on that front, especially after watching Western Carolina’s offense go up and the down the field against the Bulldogs two weeks ago.

One positive I came up with after crunching some numbers: The Citadel has generally not let a loss to Wofford ruin the rest of the season. The Bulldogs are only 2-5 during Higgins’ tenure after losing to the Terriers, but the overall record post-Wofford in that seven-year time frame is a respectable 13-13.

Wofford leads the league (and the nation) in rushing offense, at 408.3 yards per game. The Terriers also lead the SoCon in total offense, scoring offense, punt return average, field goal percentage (a perfect 8-8), offensive third-down conversion percentage, turnover margin, and both “red zone” offense and defense scoring percentage.

Wofford is second in the conference in offensive pass efficiency, penalties, and offensive sacks allowed (no surprise that the three league triple option teams are 1-2-3 in the last category).

All of that is very impressive, and goes a long way to explaining the Terriers’ 6-1 record. The only caveat is Wofford’s early-season schedule did not feature particularly strong opposition. Wofford has played Gardner-Webb, Lincoln (a Division II school located in Pennsylvania), Western Carolina, Elon, Furman, Georgia Southern, and Appalachian State (in that order).

The Terriers rushed for 402 yards against Gardner-Webb and actually increased their rushing yardage totals for each of the next two weeks. That isn’t easy to do when you start off with a 400-yard effort. Wofford rushed for 449 yards against Lincoln and a staggering 590 yards versus Western Carolina.

The following week, Elon “held” the Terriers to 500 yards rushing. Running back Eric Breitenstein had a 321-yard rushing day for the Terriers in that game. Rushing totals for Wofford in its last three games: 303 (against Furman), 221 (Georgia Southern, a game the Terriers lost 17-9), and 393 (Appalachian State).

Nobody has stopped Breitenstein yet this season. He only carried the ball five times against Lincoln because there was no need to use him, but he has rushed for at least 150 yards in four of Wofford’s other six games, and ran for over 100 yards in the other two contests.

While Breitenstein has been a constant, Wofford is going to be challenged over the remainder of the season to maintain its offensive efficiency, due to the loss of some key players due to injury. Left tackle Calvin Cantrell will miss his second straight game on Saturday due to a concussion, while slotback Donovan Johnson and backup quarterback Michael Weimer (who has played quite a bit for the Terriers) are also not expected to see the field.

Jared Singleton, Wofford’s center, is hurt but listed on the two-deep and will probably play. Left guard Tymeco Gregory also got banged up in the game against Appalachian State, but is expected to start.

The injury list for Wofford extends to its defense, as linebacker Kevin Thomas (who has started three games for the Terriers and is third on the team in tackles) will not play against The Citadel. Another linebacker, Phillip LeGrande (who has started all seven games), also may not play against the Bulldogs. Defensive end Zach Bobb started Wofford’s first five games of the season, but injured his knee against Furman and is out for the season.

Wofford placekicker Christian Reed missed the game against Appalachian State with a quad injury but is listed as the starter on the two-deep for this week’s contest. Punter Kasey Redfern replaced him against the Mountaineers and made his only FG try (29 yards).

There is a touch of uncertainty with Wofford’s injury list. For example, while Todd Shanesy of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal tweeted that Weimer would be out for the game against the Bulldogs, he is still listed on the depth chart. Just keep that in mind.

If Weimer doesn’t go, that doesn’t mean starting quarterback Brian Kass will play the whole game, according to Mike Ayers. Third-string QB James Lawson will likely get some snaps on Saturday.

Incidentally, Wofford has had eighteen different players carry the ball this season. Twelve of them have at least one rush for more than twenty yards.

Among other Terriers of note: offensive right tackle Jake Miles (a preseason all-SoCon selection), outside linebacker Alvin Scioneaux (also a preseason first team pick), and inside linebacker Mike Niam, a force when healthy (he has suffered multiple knee injuries while at Wofford).

Fellow inside linebacker Mike McCrimon leads the Terriers in tackles. Defensive end Tarek Odom’s 40-yard fumble return for a TD sealed the Terriers’ win over Appalachian State. E.J. Speller is a 290-lb. redshirt freshman nosetackle who is having a fine season; he will be a key factor on Saturday.

Wofford’s defense held each of its first four opponents under 100 yards rushing. Last week, the Terriers held the Mountaineers to 106 yards rushing (363 total yards).

Odds and ends:

— Wofford’s sideline reporter for its radio broadcasts is Van Hipp, Jr. If that name sounds familiar to Low Country residents, it’s because he ran for Congress about two decades ago. Hipp wound up in a primary runoff for the seat in the 1st Congressional District, but lost to a political newcomer named Mark Sanford.

— Saturday’s game will be Wofford’s Homecoming, which means The Citadel will play in two consecutive Homecoming games, Wofford’s and its own.

— Wofford is undefeated this season when it loses the coin toss (4-0).

The 1959 game between The Citadel and Wofford was the last game in the series to be played in Orangeburg, at the County Fairgrounds. The game was played on “Big Friday” and only drew 8,000 spectators, a disappointing showing that probably led to the end of neutral-site contests between the two schools. The Citadel won 40-8; six different Bulldogs scored touchdowns in the game.

Wofford would not play The Citadel again until 1967, possibly because of a disagreement between the two coaches, Eddie Teague of The Citadel and Wofford’s Conley Snidow. Snidow accused Teague of running up the score, a charge the Bulldogs coach vehemently denied.

Not only did Snidow complain about a late touchdown scored by The Citadel (even though the TD came after Wofford had fumbled the ball on its own five-yard-line), he belittled the Bulldogs’ victory, saying it came against one of his lesser squads. There may have been some previous bad blood between the two men, as The Citadel had already announced it was suspending the series.

The 1967 contest was the only time The Citadel played Wofford between 1959 and 1975.

By the way, the main photo accompanying the game story features “Broadway Billy” Hughes, and the first paragraph of the article itself describes teammate Billy Whaley as “The Citadel’s vice president in charge of touchdowns”. Ah, those were the days.

For anyone wondering, Paul Maguire did play in the game. He did not score, but caught three passes for forty yards and punted three times, averaging 43 yards per kick.

I’ll be honest. I don’t have a good feeling about the upcoming game, not from The Citadel’s perspective. While Wofford is struggling with injuries of its own, the Terriers have more than their fair share of proven depth. They have options.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are painfully thin at linebacker, a problem exacerbated by (in my opinion) less than optimal play by the defensive line in recent weeks. If The Citadel is going to have any chance of winning Saturday’s matchup, the d-line has to make big plays. That hasn’t really happened in the last month or so.

Anyone who saw the game against Western Carolina has to cringe at the thought of the Bulldogs’ D versus an experienced (if beat up) offensive line and a steady quarterback like Brian Kass, with Eric Breitenstein ready to break loose at any point (he has 12 runs of 20+ yards already this season).

Am I pessimistic? Well, yes.

However, the team has to take a more positive approach. Wofford isn’t invincible, and the Bulldogs don’t need to play a perfect game to win on Saturday. They just have to play very, very well.

I’ll be in Spartanburg on Saturday. I may have my doubts, but I’ll be there. The Bulldogs were good enough to beat Georgia Southern and thrash Appalachian State in Boone. The potential is still there.

Now let’s make something of it.

Game Review, 2012: Western Carolina

The Citadel 45, Western Carolina 31.

Links of interest:

Game story, The Post and Courier

Notes, The Post and Courier

Story (with video), WCSC-TV

Kevin Higgins’ postgame presser (video), with Brandon McCladdie and Darien Robinson

Box score

Phew.

At the end of this post are some photos I took before and during the game. I’m including quite a few shots of the corps marching on to the field, more than usual.

As for the game shots, I tried to take more “action” shots this time, to go along with my standard pre-snap photos. As I’ve said many times, I’m not a good photographer, and my camera is just as limited as I am. Thus, the pictures can be hit-or-miss, with a lot more misses than hits.

Now for some random observations from the game, in no particular order.

The key play of the game, without any question, came with a little over nine minutes remaining in the third quarter:

Austin Jordan kickoff 54 yards to the WCU11, Shaun Warren return 8 yards to the WCU19 (Vinny Miller).

That is how the play was described in the box score play-by-play account. To say the description does not do Vinny Miller justice is a massive understatement.

Miller did not merely tackle the kick returner. HE BLEW HIM UP. There are balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade that aren’t blown up as much. The only reason the WCU player did not fumble the football is because the ball was basically pressed to his body in the same way a suction cup can be attached to a flat surface. Such was the force of the hit.

At the time, the game was tied at 24, and the crowd was, shall we say, apprehensive. After Miller’s hit, the atmosphere in the stadium markedly changed. The fans got wound up, and so did the defense, which to that point in the game had not forced a Western Carolina punt.

The sequence following Miller’s tackle went like this: defense forces three-and-out (including a sack by Cam Mobley, the Bulldogs’ first of the game), offense gets great field position, offense scores in four plays (helped by a 15-yard Catamount penalty), defense forces another three-and-out, offense drives 84 yards in 11 plays and scores to give The Citadel a two-touchdown lead.

The tackle was a huge, momentum-swinging event. I am not one who puts much stock in big hits meaning a whole lot over the course of a game, but this was an exception. I don’t think anyone who was at the game would disagree with me (and Kevin Higgins referenced it during his postgame interview with the press).

Listed above in the links section is WCSC’s video story for the game. The play leading to Miller’s tackle starts at around the 1:10 mark. To be honest, I’m not sure the video gives viewers a true understanding of the hit’s magnitude. I guess you had to be there. I am glad that I was.

For the most part, the offensive play calling was excellent for The Citadel against Western Carolina. However, I have to take issue with one particular call. I don’t criticize play calling too much, because I know full well I’m no expert, but in this case I feel compelled to point out what I think was a mistake.

I’m now going to criticize a play call by the Bulldogs that resulted in a touchdown for The Citadel…

The situation was this: fourth quarter, The Citadel clinging to a 38-31 lead. Western Carolina had just scored and attempted an onside kick, only for it to be collected by Domonic Jones. With 4:39 remaining, the Bulldogs began the drive on the WCU 46.

The Citadel picked up two first downs. Then, with less than two minutes to play, the Bulldogs faced third-and-four on the WCU 19. Ben Dupree rushed for six yards and a first down at the WCU 13. With just one timeout remaining and less than ninety seconds left in regulation, it was over for Western Carolina. The Citadel could go into “victory formation” and run out the clock.

Instead, the Bulldogs ran another play, a toss to Van Dyke Jones, who ran 13 yards for a touchdown.

Why?

If you take a knee (or two), the game is over. Why risk another play and a potential turnover — especially a pitch? I didn’t understand that at all.

Even the result (a touchdown) doesn’t end the argument, because The Citadel gave the ball back to Western Carolina with 1:16 to play. WCU was down by two scores, but at least had the ball and a chance (however remote) for a miracle. If the Bulldogs had taken a knee, the Catamounts wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

What if Western Carolina had run the kickoff back for a TD, then recovered an onside kick? The Catamounts would have had about a minute (and a timeout) to tie the game. Sure, it would have been a longshot, but if you’re WCU that is better than no shot.

Another issue is that The Citadel’s defense had to go back onto the field. It wound up being for only five plays, but those are five plays the defense really did not need. Admittedly, one of them resulted in an emphatic sack by Chris Billingslea, the video of which he can use as an audition tape for the WWE.

I just think when you have a chance to run out the clock and end the game, you should do so.

I was really glad to see the Bulldogs wearing light blue jerseys and white pants on Saturday. I wouldn’t mind seeing the same combination for Homecoming. It’s a good look. It’s also the right look.

Full credit must be given to Western Carolina’s Rock Williams, an indefatigable tackler. He had 24 stops (17 solo) against The Citadel. Williams also stole the ball from Ben Dupree when the Bulldogs were driving for an apparent score, which was just a ridiculous play by the Catamount linebacker. WCU needs a few more guys like Williams in its lineup.

After the game, I was happy the Bulldogs won, but more relieved than anything. Losing to Western Carolina in that situation would have had a lot of negative consequences.

I don’t know if the team would have completely lost confidence if it had lost the game, but I think a significant percentage of the fan base would have. It was only a few weeks ago that The Citadel was riding high at 3-0, but if the Bulldogs had followed up less-than-competitive losses to Chattanooga and Samford with a home loss to a woeful Western Carolina squad on Parents’ Day — well, the knives might have come out.

By winning, the Bulldogs avoided losing three games in four seasons to WCU, a program that has now lost 48 of its last 51 SoCon contests. The Citadel also snapped a five-game losing skid in “celebration games” (Parents’ Day and Homecoming), a streak which certainly wasn’t helping longterm attendance issues.

All in all, the second half was (in my opinion) pivotal for the tenure of Kevin Higgins. I’m glad the Bulldogs overcame serious defensive issues and made enough plays to get the victory.

The bye week comes at a good time. The Citadel has two weeks to figure things out on defense; the Bulldogs definitely need that time. Injured players will have a chance to heal, and the team can mentally prepare for the four-game finish.

Before the season started, I thought a winning season would be considered a successful year. The Citadel is 4-3, not exactly in the way its fans may have envisioned it being 4-3, but regardless the Bulldogs are still in a decent position to accomplish that goal. It won’t be easy, but it can (and should) be done.

It’s time to take a breath before the stretch run.

2012 Football, Game 7: The Citadel vs. Western Carolina

The Citadel vs. Western Carolina, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 2:00 pm ET on Saturday, October 13.  The game will not be televised, although it will be streamed on Bulldog Insider (subscription service) and can be heard on radio via the twelve affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Danny Reed (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Josh Baker, with Lee Glaze roaming the sidelines and Walt Nadzak providing pre-game, halftime, and post-game commentary. 

Links of interest:

The Citadel game notes

Western Carolina game notes

SoCon weekly release

The Kevin Higgins Show

Comments from Kevin Higgins at his weekly press conference

Mark Speir SoCon teleconference

Hey, read about The Citadel’s outstanding punter, Cass Couey. He likes to fish!

When The Citadel played Western Carolina last season, I wrote (among other things) the following:

The game against Western Carolina isn’t about a learning experience, or moving forward, or anything like that. There is only one goal for the matchup with the Catamounts, and only one acceptable outcome.  The Citadel must win this game.

That was true then, and it is true now, though the circumstances are not quite the same. The Citadel was 2-4 at this point last season, having lost two straight games, and played WCU on the road.

This year, the Bulldogs are 3-3, but have lost three consecutive contests, with the last two games being dispiriting affairs. The seventh game of 2012 will take place at Johnson Hagood Stadium, on Parents’ Day.

Last year, The Citadel took care of business against the Catamounts, winning 35-7. What about Saturday’s game?

First, let’s take a quick look back at last Saturday’s game against Samford. Yes, we have to do that…

I think at this point The Citadel is a known quantity on defense. It is a unit that has some limitations, including a lack of experience in key spots. To be fair, though, that was the concern heading into the season.

For example, I believe most people liked our starting linebackers but were worried about depth at that position. Now the Bulldogs have lost two of those three players for the season. That is a problem and will continue to be one for the rest of the campaign.

It doesn’t mean the defense is a lost cause; far from it. There is still talent on that side of the ball.

The main problem on D against Samford, in my view, was that the defensive line did not have a particularly good day, getting very little pressure on Samford quarterback Andy Summerlin, and not having much luck against the run either.

I think the d-line is better than that one game. That was certainly the case against Georgia Southern and Appalachian State. It is also true that against Samford, the defense didn’t get any help from the offense, and that took its toll in the second half.

The offense’s play was the really disappointing thing about the game in Birmingham. It wasn’t the first time The Citadel had struggled offensively against Samford, though.

In three games against Samford since moving to the triple option, The Citadel is a combined 6 for 39 on third-down conversions. That is…not good.

Samford’s “bear” front basically forces a team to go outside or over the top to beat it. A team that is successful in doing so can break a lot of big plays. Georgia Southern couldn’t convert on third down against Samford either (0 for 10), but had three long touchdown runs. In the last three games against Samford, The Citadel has only had four plays from the line of scrimmage that went for longer than 20 yards.

In his weekly press conference, Kevin Higgins referenced both issues. I felt a little better after hearing his comments. The game plan, to me, appears to have been a fairly good one:

Our goal going into the game was to be aggressive…We went for it on fourth-and-one because we wanted to send a message out to our guys that we wanted them to play aggressive. We were fortunate to get the first down. The very next play we had a play-action throw, as Ben Dupree hit Matt Thompson for a 48-yard strike and we got some momentum going there.

We had two legitimate shots for touchdowns that we just didn’t throw the ball real well or we dropped it. We ended with six dropped balls on the day. Several of those being real tough catches, but we needed to make those plays. Additionally in the second quarter Dupree threw an interception off a scramble and that hurt us [it certainly did, as it was returned for a TD].

Third down conversions were not good…We didn’t do a good job at continuing drives, as we ended up going 1-14 on third-down conversions. If we would have moved the ball better in the first half, it would have taken pressure off of our defense.

That comes close to summing up the offense’s afternoon.

Before moving on to the Western Carolina game, a special teams observation. The Citadel had a field goal blocked against Samford, never a good thing, but paid back that mishap with its own field goal block a short time later. It was yet another rejection for special teams stalwart Domonic Jones. He also got a hand on a second Samford field goal attempt that eventually sailed wide.

In his last 17 games, Jones has blocked six punts and two field goal attempts (not counting the deflection against Samford). He blocked two punts against Jacksonville in last year’s opener, and would later block a punt versus Elon and another in the VMI game (of course, you had to take a number to do that against the Keydets).

Jones has burned Appalachian State in consecutive seasons, blocking a punt for a TD in both the 2011 and 2012 games against the Mountaineers. His first career block of a field goal attempt came this year and was a critical play in the Bulldogs’ victory over Georgia Southern (and may have influenced the Eagles’ other FG attempt, a last-second miss).

Blocking a kick every other game is rather remarkable, and while Jones has drawn some recognition for his kick-blocking exploits, I’m not sure he has really received his just due. I think the SoCon needs to consider adding a place on its all-conference team for a special teams performer who isn’t a kicker or return man. Jones would be an obvious candidate to fill that spot.

Times have been tough for the Western Carolina football program in recent years. If you need confirmation of that, all you have to do is look at the WCU game notes. I’ve seen a lot of releases over the years, but the folks in Cullowhee have apparently made a commitment to stating brutal truths. No sugarcoating is allowed, I guess. The lowlights include:

– An 18-game losing streak in SoCon play, which is the longest current streak of futility for any FCS team in its own conference. The last time Western Carolina won a league game? Well, it was the last time WCU played at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

– That win over The Citadel in 2010 is also the last time the Catamounts defeated an NCAA Division I opponent, and the last time WCU won a road game.

– Western Carolina lost 20 SoCon games in a row from 2005-08.

– WCU has lost five straight games this season after winning its opener against Mars Hill.

– The Catamounts are 4-29 in their last 33 road contests, a stretch that dates back to 2005. WCU’s current road losing streak stands at 11 games, which is the sixth-longest such streak among FCS schools (Idaho State has lost a staggering 36 consecutive road games).

– WCU beat Mars Hill 42-14. The fourteen points allowed by the Catamounts marked the fewest points scored by an opponent since, you guessed it, the 2010 game against The Citadel (a 24-13 WCU victory).

– Western Carolina has lost 47 of its last 50 Southern Conference games. Two of the three victories have come against The Citadel.

On the bright side, most observers applauded Western Carolina’s selection of Mark Speir as its new head coach. Speir was a student assistant at Clemson during the latter part of the Danny Ford era in Tigertown. He then moved to Western Carolina for several years before three-year stops at Presbyterian and Elon. He had been on the Appalachian State coaching staff since 2003, and the recruiting coordinator for Jerry Moore since 2004.

Speir comes across (at least in the media teleconferences the SoCon puts out every week) as folksy, but not overly so. While listening to him this week, I was particularly impressed with a comment he made (basically unprompted) about this year’s Catamount squad:

I told [the WCU players] we are still here for this team, the 2012 team, to be a good football team, and we have five more opportunities to become a good football team…and our staff is not looking to next year, we’re looking [forward] to this week and the next four weeks…

That sounds like the opposite of, say, Charlie Weis. Being the opposite of Charlie Weis as a football coach strikes me as a good place to be (although Weis apparently has a great agent).

Speir clearly has his work cut out for him, though, especially this season. This year’s WCU outfit has been okay offensively, but on defense…not so much.

The aforementioned game notes actually include a paragraph entitled “Western Carolina’s Troubles With The Triple Option”. I couldn’t wait to read that section.

– Wofford rushed for 590 yards against the Catamounts, averaging over 8.5 yards per carry. Three Terriers rushed for over 100 yards.

– Georgia Southern rushed for 614 yards against WCU, averaging over 7.7 yards per carry. GSU had five different ballcarriers rush for at least 89 yards.

– You didn’t have to run the triple option to run on Western Carolina, though. Furman averaged 7.9 yards per carry in its victory over the Catamounts; the Paladins’ Jerodis Williams rushed for 239 yards on only 18 carries. Williams also added a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD.

– Samford running back Fabian Truss rushed for 180 yards against Western Carolina.

In that Samford game, though, Western Carolina actually had the lead in the fourth quarter before giving up 15 unanswered points and losing 25-21. Still, that level of competitiveness should get The Citadel’s attention.

WCU opened the scoring against Samford with a fumble recovery for a touchdown, one of three fumble returns for TDs the Catamounts have had this season. Maybe it isn’t the world’s greatest defense, but it appears WCU’s D is at least opportunistic at times.

Western Carolina runs a spread offense, not unlike that of Appalachian State. Eddie Sullivan has received the bulk of the snaps at quarterback, but Troy Mitchell will also see a lot of time. Against Georgia Southern, the two were interchanged for each other on almost every down, and occasionally were in the backfield together.

The Catamounts have several running backs; the two-deep’s listed starter, Michael Vaughn, has fewer rushing yards than three of the other RBs. Jacoby Mitchell is Western Carolina’s leading receiver, but keep an eye on 6’4″ freshman Spearman Robinson, a native of Greenwood.

There appears to be a bit of uncertainty on the left side of WCU’s offensive line, with both the LG and LT spots on the two-deep listed as an “or” situation. Josh Weinberg is a 260-lb. true freshman who will start at right tackle.

On defense, Western Carolina’s best player is linebacker/tackling machine Rock Williams, a preseason second-team All-SoCon selection. Randy Pressley isn’t listed as a starter at linebacker, but he made 16 tackles against Georgia Southern last week, including the Catamounts’ only tackle for loss.

WCU’s defensive line is not particularly large, as only two of the nine players on the depth chart weigh more than 265 lbs. and four of them weigh less than 250 lbs. The secondary is young; two of the starters are freshmen, and two others are sophomores.

Western Carolina punter Clark Sechrest is having a good year thus far. He presents a different challenge for Domonic Jones and company in that he is left-footed and can employ the “rugby style” of punting. He is also the backup placekicker. According to WCU’s website, he kicks field goals and PATs with his right foot.

The regular placekicker for WCU, Richard Sigmon, is 4 for 8 on FG attempts with a long of 45. He has had one kick blocked. Sigmon is also the kickoff specialist. Four of his 27 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks.

Western Carolina’s punt return unit is not particularly strong. On kickoff returns, the long for the season for the Catamounts is 38 yards.

Tangent alert…

I need a ruling. Is Saturday’s game Parent’s Day (as noted on the school’s game preview) or Parents Day (on the website’s season schedule)? Actually, I think Parents’ Day would be more correct than either.

The press release from External Affairs refers to “Parents’ Weekend” throughout, except for (of course) the title of the release (“Parents Weekend”).

I’m going to go with Parents’ Day on this blog post. Yes, I know nobody cares.

What we really care about is the action on the field. The Citadel needs to win this game. It doesn’t really matter how, although I would personally be in favor of a blowout victory in which everyone gets to play a lot and the cadets all get overnights. Hey, I’m generous. Also, I remember Parents’ Day 1986 all too well. Not a good weekend.

There have been some good Parents’ Day games (the most famous being The Citadel’s 1950 victory over South Carolina), but lately things haven’t gone the home team’s way at what I call the “celebration” games — Parents’ Day and Homecoming. The Citadel has lost five consecutive celebration games.

Since 1953 (when the modern yearly Parents’ Day/Homecoming advanced schedule began), The Citadel has never lost six consecutive celebration games.

Incidentally, in none of those five losses did The Citadel wear its “traditional” uniform of light blue jerseys/white pants. Sure, that is just a coincidence. Still, perhaps Kevin Higgins’ Leadership Council can get together and appease some old alums while reversing a little karma. Just a suggestion.

I think the Bulldogs will win on Saturday, although I’m not overly confident. Nobody should be confident, given the results of the last two weeks. It is also worth pointing out that despite Western Carolina being a terrible football program for a number of years now, the Catamounts have won two of the last three games in this series.

WCU has players on its roster who know they can beat The Citadel. They will be more confident against the Bulldogs than any other SoCon team.

On the other hand, the stats don’t lie. League opponents have run the ball at will against Western Carolina. Saturday’s game is a good opportunity for Triple O’Higgins to put up some big numbers, and for the players to regain some lost confidence.

Perhaps the fans can regain some lost confidence as well.

Congratulations to all the seniors as they get their rings, with a gentle reminder that it isn’t over yet. There are still diplomas to be acquired.

Congratulations also to the freshmen who have made it to this benchmark. You still have a long way to travel, but you’ve survived the most stressful part of the trip.

I hope everyone has a good time this weekend. Let’s win this game.